Earlier this year, at a potluck dinner, a new acquaintance learned I was a history teacher and did that thing many do – told a story about themselves. Her story was a familiar one: about how “crazy left-wing” her high school history teacher at an international school was; “our textbook was A People’s History” I was told. I nodded and suggested “that’s fascinating”.
If you’ve worked with me you know I am crystal clear about my concerns of history teachers who over-rely on Howard Zinn. I have always had my concerns, and several years ago Sam Wineburg wrote the definitive explanation of those concerns. However, a recent trip to see The People Speak at BAM clarified for me that I often conflate my concerns about the use of Zinn in the classroom with Zinn’s work.
Our amazing AP US History teacher managed to organize a trip of 50 students and 5 teachers to see everyone from Maggie Gyllenhaal to Stacyann Chin perform speeches from throughout American history. The performances ranged from the familiar and expected to the new (to me). A selection from Howard Zinn’s The Problem is Civil Disobedience (did I just link to “netstorm”?) is what resonated the most:
I start from the supposition that the world is topsy-turvy, that things are all wrong, that the wrong people are in jail and the wrong people are out of jail, that the wrong people are in power and the wrong people are out of power, that the wealth is distributed in this country and the world in such a way as not simply to require small reform but to require a drastic reallocation of wealth. I start from the supposition that we don’t have to say too much about this because all we have to do is think about the state of the world today and realize that things are all upside down.
Later that week a student shared a lyric he wrote for a rap he was working on: “you didn’t vote in the election so you can’t complain, open your notebook ’cause Professor Zinn is about to explain” (I am paraphrasing a few weeks later and will clarify). My student’s lyric and the impact of this reading as performed at The People Speak was a (needed) reminder of the importance of the historian as an activist, especially Zinn, a point Wineberg alludes to in his original article and one made clear by the Zinn Education Project in response.